Herbert James “Burt” Munro was a motorcycle racer from New Zealand whose speed record exploits on the salt flats of Bonneville late in life were immortalised in the 2005 film The World’s Fastest Indian starring Anthony Hopkins.
Born in March 1899 at Edendale in Southland (as the name suggests, the southernmost region of New Zealand), Burt was fascinated by machinery and speed from a young age. In 1920 he bought a new Indian Scout motorcycle, a 600cc V twin with a top speed of 50-60mph, and made it his life’s mission to make it go faster.
He worked as a speedway rider in Australia during the ‘20s but returned with a young family to New Zealand during the Great Depression of the ‘30s to sell motorbikes. He carried on racing and set two flying half-mile records in 1940 on his Munro Special Indian. His bike always carried the number 35, which was the race number assigned him when he first joined the Southland Motorcycle Club.
Following the Second World War, and divorce from his wife Florence, he gave up working and lived in a shed with his Indian and Velocette bikes and his tools. He spent his time and what little money he had continuing to modify and rebuild the bikes, gradually increasing the bore and stroke for greater power and speed.
His engineering methods were rather unorthodox; casting parts in old tins and reportedly in holes in the sand at the local beach. He made his own barrels, flywheels, pistons, cams and followers and lubrication system. His engine in its final form had hand-carved con-rods, hewn from a tractor axle, which he hardened and tempered to increase their tensile strength.
In 1962, aged 63 - having attended the Bonneville Speed Week five years previously for “sightseeing” - Burt shipped his heavily modified Indian to Utah. During his first competitive visit he broke the American Motorcycle Association record for a bike of 55cu (883cc) displacement with a speed of 178.971mph.
He returned to Bonneville a further eight times, breaking two more world speed records in 1966 and 1967. On the last of these, now aged 68, Burt averaged 183.58mph - a record which still stands today as the fastest streamlined motorcycle under 1000cc. In an officially timed qualifying run he’d been clocked at 190.07mph, the fastest speed ever recorded on an Indian motorcycle.
After a few years of failing health, Burt Munro died in January 1978, having sold his beloved Indian to friend and fellow enthusiast Norman Hayes, whose family business now proudly displays it in their store. As well as the bike, he left behind a legend of skill, courage and perseverance.
Burt Munro once said, “I’ll never give up until I’ve had a good run.”
We are pleased to commemorate Burt's achievements, with the blessing of his family, by commissioning a series of products including this Spirit of Munro sculpture.
Image credit: E Hayes Motorworks Collection